I’ve thought long and hard about whether or not I should write this blog. Doping is an emotive subject, no matter what side of the fence you sit on. When addressing a subject like this, and trying to address people who don’t agree with your point of view, a certain amount of cognitive dissonance will occur – which can create an angry backlash. So go easy on me please.
- Do athletes take drugs?
Yes, some athletes take drugs. In anything where success is at stake, a certain amount of people will attempt to gain an unfair edge or advantage. In high profile sports, with more at stake, it seems likely that more of this would be happening. If countries put a large amount of emphasis on success in these sports, then a state-sponsored doping system may well be in place – think the GDR from 1960-1990, or Russia in more recent times. The effect of taking drugs is also going to be much more apparent in individual events, such as those found in athletes, which are not subject to team based factors that might dilute performance gains. The recent revelations further illustrate that athlete’s can, and sometimes do, take drugs.
- Do all athletes take drugs?
So, we can probably all agree that some athletes take drugs. The point of contention, therefore, is how many athletes take drugs. From my own experience, I believe this number to be very low. In my career, I can think of one incident that I have seen related to doping – I once found a discarded intravenous drip in a toilet at an athletics competition. Certainly, no-one ever offered me drugs, or even had a conversation with me about it. I would have been a perfect candidate for a doping regime too – someone on the cusp of being pretty good. If I had taken drugs, I might well have run under 10-seconds, possibly being the first white man to do so. And yet that conversation was never had with me. Should I be offended by this? Or is it indicative that, within the UK at least, there isn’t really much of a drug culture (or at least there hasn’t been since UKAD was launched).
- Why is there a perception from the public that all/most athletes take drugs to compete?
Think about the narrative that investigative journalists need to have in order to create a story that people want to listen to. Would you have watched Panorama the other night if it were about some athletes who hadn’t taken drugs? Or does controversy increase viewership? I think we all know the answer to that question, and if you are looking at a skewed sample, of course you are going to get skewed results. We see a similar narrative in programmes like “Benefit Street”, which further the notion that everyone on benefits is so because they can’t be bothered to work, and instead live an incredibly cushioned life. The reality is somewhat different.
In addition to my point above I’m going to offer a slightly more controversial reason on why there is this perception: It provides a ready-made excuse for people who aren’t successful. If you believe you didn’t win because the people that are better than you are on drugs, then your own personal narrative is that you were cheated out of it, as opposed to just not being good enough. This is protective to that individual, as it stops them from viewing it as a failure. The pervasive belief in our society is that hard work triumphs over talent, and that is just not true. More often than not, people who outperform you in sport do so because they are better than you, or more talented than you, and not because they dope. I heard whispers during my career that I was doping – well if that was the case I’d want my money back, because they certainly didn’t work.
A friend of mine whom I used to train with has a 100m personal best of 10.7 seconds, making me 0.6s quicker than him over 100m. And I was a good athlete, but I certainly wasn’t exceptional. I’m not incredibly talented, I’m not that tall, I don’t have long legs, I wasn’t incredibly strong. In a lot of aspects I was far from the finished article. And yet I was significantly faster than my friend, without taking drugs. So, it isn’t that hard for me to believe that Usain Bolt can be 0.6s faster than me and also be clean. He can outperform me in so many factors, I’m actually surprised that he is only 0.6s faster than me!
- Is there a doping conspiracy in sport
Erm……. Maybe. I believe that some countries will either deliberately dope their athletes, or turn a blind eye to them doing so. History is full of this type of situation. But some countries actively have a great and effective anti-doping system. Do big sponsors enable their athletes to dope, or at least turn a blind eye to it? If we believe Steve Magness’s claims (and he seems like a very credible witness, and is someone that I have immense respect for) then it seems like this could be the case. But is this prevalent in athletics? I genuinely don’t believe so!
In the UK, we have an incredibly good anti-doping system. I used to be tested on a very regular basis (my record is 3 random tests in 5 days), and at various times. I never knew when a test was coming. I honestly believe that all high-level athletes that are based in the UK are not taking drugs.
- What level of evidence do we need to determine if someone is cheating?
Unfortunately, passing drugs test appears to no longer be enough to illustrate that an athlete isn’t taking drugs; we’ve had far too many cases of people not failing drugs tests, and later being shown to have been active dopers. So, it’s really hard to give a black and white answer on this (sadly). But, also, pure conjecture doesn’t really help. Comments such as “Well he was a bit tired and waiting for the end of the season, then a month later he broke such and such record, therefore drugs” are far below the threshold of evidence required, in my opinion, to illustrate doping. On more than one occasion I’ve felt very tired, and then quite soon after run a personal best. I’m not saying that the person making those comments is wrong (in fact, I believe they are probably correct), just that we need harder evidence of that. But I don’t know what that evidence should be.
So, there you have it. Yes, athletes take drugs. No, it’s probably not as many as you think. Deciding whether people are doping or not is difficult. With a lot of things, we will probably never know the full truth of it all, and I certainly don’t have all the answers. But please don’t think that drug use if rife in athletics, because I firmly believe it isn’t.